Taking a glance at the Pac-10 Conference standings it seems very likely that UCLA will play either Arizona or Washington in the first round of the conference tournament next week regardless of the outcome of Saturday's game. Arizona is the more likely opponent of the two. Neither opponent is one the Bruins would savor playing. So the obvious question is whether or not the ASU game now really means anything. For Coach Ben Howland the game certainly means something. Howland wants to win every time he coaches a game, even if the game has little meaning in the overall picture. Optimistically, the Bruins and their fans should respect and enjoy the fact that they have a man at the head of their program that is so competitive. Cynically, that attitude has arguably led Howland to make personnel decisions that have been questioned throughout the internet world, reasonably or not. Most importantly, though, the ASU game represents an opportunity for the Bruins to enter the conference tournament on the upswing, both in how they are playing and their mental attitude.
The Bruins were arguably the better team in their Thursday night loss at Arizona. However, and Russ Smith hit the nail on the head in his game review, the Bruins ran out of gas so badly that Arizona was able to put forward one spurt and eventually win the game off that spurt. The biggest reason for that loss, (and for the loss to Oregon, for that matter), was the physical decimation that had and has taken over the frontcourt players for the Bruins. Reeves Nelson and James Keefe were out because of injury, J'Mison Morgan was out because of a discipline issue and Brendan Lane played the game on Thursday essentially on one leg. Howland and the Bruins will return Morgan for certain on Saturday and hope to have Nelson available for at least limited minutes. Perhaps this would be a good game to rest both Lane and Nelson and have them as fresh as possible for the conference tournament. But because of Howland's aforementioned mentality and competitiveness, that is highly unlikely.
Assuming Howland will play to win and not rest players, the game is going to come down to two things; can UCLA's zone defense force ASU out of its offensive comfort level much like the Bruins did to the Sun Devils in January at Pauley Pavilion, and can the Bruin offense execute against ASU's 1-3-1 match-up zone defense and man defense?
It was interesting to watch Arizona only put token pressure against Malcolm Lee when he got the Bruins into their halfcourt offense. As Russ Smith wrote, the Wildcat pressure became more intense and higher up the floor when Mustafa Abdul-Hamid or Jerime Anderson was running things. Arizona State will not exhibit that kind of on-ball defensive pressure. They, much like Oregon State and Washington State, (is it something about teams with ‘State' in their name?), prefer to deny passing lanes than put direct ball pressure. One of the difference between now and when these two teams hooked up at Pauley is that Coach Herb Sendek now has the Sun Devils playing a lot more man defense than in the past. Either way, though, the glaring deficiencies of the Bruin point position shouldn't be so evident because the Bruins won't be pressured. Instead the Bruins will have to cope with the trapping that ASU does out of its 1-3-1 zone, especially on the sideline and at the free throw line extended. The Bruins have generally been successful against this style of defense this year. It will be one that doesn't punish the Bruins for poor ball control on the dribble and leaves a lot of diagonal and weakside passing room off the initial pass. Tyler Honeycutt could have a big day against this defense if ASU goes with a lot of zone.
While ASU does play a better version of a match-up zone than does either Oregon State or Washington State, the fact is that the strengths of the Bruin offense really play to the weaknesses of the ASU defense, assuming they're in a zone. The real concern is on the other end of the floor. ASU's offense is led by senior Derek Glasser (6'1" 190 lbs.) who is probably the best pass-first guard in the conference. He doesn't turn the ball over, he hits enough of his shots to keep the opposition honest and he turns opponents' defensive mistakes into points for his squad. Glasser had issues the first time these two teams played because of a bum ankle, but he's healthy this time around. The Sun Devils also have four players, Glasser and juniors Rihards Kuksiks (6'6" 210), Ty Abbott (6'3" 207 lbs.) and Jamelle McMillan (6'2" 180 lbs.) all shoot at better than 39% from beyond the three-point line. The Bruins aren't a good defensive team when they have to find multiple shooters and on Saturday they could conceivably have to keep track of four at one time. Further, ASU runs their sets very well and they are methodical, a Sendek calling card. This will force the Bruins to have to focus for much of each 35 second possession for ASU. Finally, the Sun Devils are able to count on senior center Eric Boateng (6'10" 257 lbs.) in the middle as a possible shot blocker and rebounder. He does a nice job of screening now for ASU which adds a new wrinkle to the Sendek system as Boateng will now screen high and outside of the paint.
The obvious problem is that the Bruins have four possible players they would have to close out on. That doesn't bode well. The other Achilles Heel for the Bruin defense has been quick guards penetrating for easy shots or dump-offs. Outside of Glasser, who is deceptively quick rather than a superior athlete, the Sun Devils don't have the kind of quick, small guard that gives the Bruins fits. While an extension of the Bruin zone to just on the three-point line would probably help, the guess is that Howland is going to go for the tried and true method of the 2-3 zone that the Bruins have played up to this point in the season. That means the same open shots should be available after overloading one side of the offense and then passing to the weakside wing.
This probably is a good match-up for the Bruins, but there are some factors working against them. First is the obvious frontcourt injury issue. The return of Bobo will help, but that doesn't change UCLA's inability to close out well against a team like ASU. Further, because of the missing post players, many of the Bruins should be exhausted going into Saturday. The caveat of that, though, is that Sendek only played 6 players in beating USC on Thursday. They should be tired, too.
Then there's the effort question; when UCLA lost last weekend to Oregon at home on Senior Day with John Wooden in attendance…you get the picture. The Bruins should have been amped to play and they came out flat. Some of that had to do with the lack of depth along the front line, but still, the energy deficiency was palpable. The Bruins have to bring a similar effort and solid game plan to Tempe on Saturday to have any hope of winning the game. If they don't, then ASU, on their Senior Day will tear the Bruins apart.
The Bruins have been so difficult to predict this season, and although they usually have followed a Thursday game with a Saturday loss, the only comparable scheduling for them this year was when they went to Oregon and lost on a Thursday in an overtime game and then came back and beat OSU comfortably less than two days later in Corvallis. Style-wise the Ducks are very much like Arizona and the Beavers are similar to ASU. That's why (and I am being a big-time homer here), I am going to predict a bit of magic for the final game. The Bruins will bring serious energy to the floor, they will have Bobo back and to a certain extent, Reeves Nelson, lee won't cramp up, Tyler will be Tyler and they will win the battle of the boards. Mike Roll will close out his season the way he should have last week, with a win. It'll be tight, though.
Arizona State 63